Our Discovery Mission
Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to discover and document all remaining Australian species of plants, animals, fungi and other organisms ... in a generation.
Part 3 - Whiteboards
The ideas below have been contributed to the whiteboard for discussion during the roundtable breakouts. You can add to them on the Whiteboard ideas page
Roundtable 7: What can (and should) change in current practice to enable our mission?
Taxonomy has a rich history and tradition. A downside of this is that some practices that may once have been strengths may now be weaknesses. This roundtable will critically examine all aspects of current taxonomic business-as-usual and try to identify those practices that remain valuable and those that we should consider changing to help with this mission. Issues examined will include:
Is the traditional taxonomic revision fit-for-purpose for an all-species mission?
What publication practices serve us well and which do not?
Those of us who are topic editors at journals could advocate for special issues that have a taxonomic focus - enabling single species descriptions and other taxonomic contributions.
The publication practices that serve the community and discipline well are those that ensure publications are right the first time and have scientific credibility, so that taxon names and associated information is correct and sufficient to meet the requirements of the relevant Code of nomenclature. These include processes like peer and nomenclatural review. However, there must be ways to streamline these processes (moving them entirely online, making them more straightforward) while still meeting any format requirements for electronic publication to be effective, and to take more advantage of linked data (e.g. digitised type specimens and data).
Journal format diversity keeps coming back as a major, universal hurdle. Solutions include relaxing submission requirements and uniformisation: both could be started already across Australian taxonomic journals.
A decadal national effort for publishing Australian species descriptions has been discussed by some, perhaps linked/aligned to current species databases in some way. This could be a rapid, peer reviewed, online presence that accepts multiple lines of evidence towards species hypotheses, and is not bogged down by more traditional sensibilities (ie. must have all parts illustrated, must have more than CO1 data) that can blow out timelines, or current research impact factors that hamper species descriptions. Perhaps coordinated through the CSIRO publishing or Federally run similarly to Bush Blitz. There must be good intentions by all though towards a more effective workflow and ramping up of production of species hypotheses or else it will founder easily.
A lower layer of taxomomy, using phena (see my Roundtable 2), might help with Volker Framenau’s online dissemination of new species and Patrick Fahey’s staggering.
I wonder if there is a way to stagger the process of species delimitation, diagnosis and potentially publication from the process of species description. A species with no description is clearly not a useful thing to be aiming for, but in my experience samples can often by recognised as new to science with some level of confidence quickly by researchers working on a taxonomic group, however the formal recognition of this species may then be delayed months to years by the work involved in describing the species. Maybe there is room for a form of central database where vetted taxa can be published with their diagnosis in the interim so as to allow other stakeholders, both other taxonomists and end users, to have full access to the current state of understanding of the diversity of our organisms. Hopefully something like this could encourage collaboration and limit overlapping effort by taxonomists working without knowledge of the samples others have squirreled away as something new, and also act as a motivating factor to get the species descriptions published.
The insistence of publication in high value journals need to be scrapped. Taxonimists should be judged on the number of Taxon that they describe rather than the state of the journal they publish in. The descriptions need to go back to distinguishing features rather than a laborious description of the whole species, after all the description of a genus should cover most of the features. Need for online publication process rather than through paper journals. Why not start our own online journal?
The traditional layout of cited specimens in botanical journals is a concatenated list of specimens seen. The information order and the format differs between every Australian botanical journal. It is not user friendly to create, it is extremely user unfriendly for the reader, and requires substantial information wrangling to get it back to a table which can then be used by a curator in a herbarium to check their collection. Its form is obsolete, harking to a day when printed page space was at a premium.
An immediate universal change across all Australian journals to accepting digital tables or spreadsheets of specimens seen would save a tremendous number of hours across all sectors. If journals are insistent on archaic data presentation, they should be willing to receive the information as a spreadsheet and it be parsed once. Do it right. Do it once.
I think it is clear that the publication of new taxa constitutes a major bottleneck in the documentation of our biota. Many of us taxonomists will have sorted museum material to morphospecies and the daunting and time-consuming task of publishing monographs in traditional journals of different formats and different requirements is difficult to fit into a busy schedule.
My vision would be the online dissemination of new species away from printed (or pdf) media. Obviously, such a system would have to adopt the important principle of nomenclature that are in place today, such as 'type' (lodge in a public collection), 'peer-review' and 'diagnosis'.
This system would employ taxon curators that are responsible for at group and who put species descriptions online, together with the author (i.e. discoverer) of the species. Combine that with citizens, who then hunt for new species, and we can really speed up the process.
Pensoft-style rapid publication with linkages to specimens, taxa, etc embedded in text
Ways to change culture - such as focussed, timely research so that (for example) specimens loaned to institutions can be returned expediently for updating and data made available online, and remain accessible
Funding for specialists to have dedicated visits to collections to assist with determination of specimens [misidentified specimens a huge issue]
More (or better) ideas? Add them here.